Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at The (New York) Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.
European Jews Rally for Israel: Jews from across Europe Converge
This article is reprinted with permission of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) and may not be reproduced without its permission. For more information about JTA, the Global News Service of the Jewish People, visit www.jta.org.
BRUSSELS, May 29 (JTA) -- From Austria, Greece, Italy and England they came. From France, Germany Switzerland and the Czech Republic. And, of course, from Belgium, where the rally took place.
Usually concerned with local problems, European Jews took a big step toward uniting their voices with a rally that drew nearly 10,000 people Wednesday to Brussels, the seat of the European Union.
The rally--the first continent-wide Jewish demonstration since the Palestinian intifada began 21 months ago--was intended to express solidarity for Israel and concern about increasing anti-Semitism in Europe.
Perhaps it was a sign that "the Jews of Europe are waking up," Harry Kney-Tal, Israel's ambassador to the European Union and NATO, told JTA. "Up until recently, each European Jewish community was involved with their own particular issues. But now they are getting more coordinated."
The rally was "the first manifestation of this awakened consciousness and the need to move from being passive to becoming proactive," he said.
The demonstration was initiated by the European Jewish Congress and coordinated by several Belgian organizations. It was timed to coincide with an E.U. parliamentary session, though neither the Mideast nor anti-Semitism were on the Parliament's agenda.
With flags whipping in a wind that turned sunny skies cloudy, marchers made their way from Brussels' main synagogue to a square facing the European Parliament buildings. French, English, Flemish, Italian, German, Greek and Czech could be heard among the ranks of the parade. When it came to singing, however, everyone turned to Hebrew.
"We are not here to protest against a Palestinian state, or against the Palestinian people," said Michel Friedman, a vice president of the European Jewish Congress and of the Central Council of German Jews. "We are here to protest in solidarity with Israel, and to say that if the Palestinians want to have a country they have to deny terrorism."
Some non-Jews also took part in the rally.
"As a German--or, as I would like to say, a European of German origin--I know my responsibility and duty,"said European Parliament member Elmar Brok, who is not Jewish. "The security of the State of Israel and the safety of its people is a condition for anything else,"said Brok, who has been involved in a campaign to stop European funding for Palestinian schoolbooks that spread hatred of Israel.
Ryk van Damm, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said he came "to express my disgust at the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe." "No Jew has attacked a mosque, no Jew has attacked an Islamic school, no Jew has attacked an imam," said Roger Cukierman, president of CRIF, the umbrella group for secular French Jewish organizations. More than any other country in Europe, France has seen a wave of attacks against Jews and destruction of Jewish property since the Mideast crisis escalated.
Other speakers included former Belgian Cabinet minister Willy de Clerk; Cobi Benatof, president of the European Congress of Jewish Communities; Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary of the European Jewish Congress; and members of the E.U. Parliament from France, Germany, Holland and Italy. Organizers said Jewish attendance from some countries was far less than hoped. Some 3,000 demonstrators came from France, which has a Jewish population of 700,000. Germany, with some 100,000 Jews, sent four buses, and Austria sent about 60 participants from its community of 7,000. Organizers estimated that about half of the Jewish demonstrators came from Belgium, which has about 35,000 Jews.
Benjamin Albalas, vice president of the Central Board of the Jewish Community of Greece, which has about 7,000 Jews, said he brought 21 young Greek Jews with him to Brussels. There also was a group from Crete.
Despite the turnout, the mood at the demonstration was enthusiastic, organizers said. Demonstrators agreed that pro-Palestinian media reports on the Mideast pose a serious danger both to political support for Israel and popular sentiment toward Jews.
"The public does not get the truth anymore," said Frederique Ries, a Belgian member of the European Parliament, who also fought to freeze E.U. money to the Palestinian Authority over the textbook issue.
"Everything is in reverse," Ries said. "When Israel makes an incursion, the media doesn't speak about why. They only minimize."
"We are trying to fight against misinformation," said Betty Dan, director of Radio Judaica, a 24-hour Jewish station in Belgium. She gets daily calls from listeners "who have received anti-Semitic flyers with such words as 'Dirty Jew, We will kill you,' and 'Don't buy from Jews,'" Dan told JTA. "For the first time in 22 years of this radio program, we have received such letters."
"Jews of Europe are menaced every day," Belgian Chief Rabbi Avraham Guigui said. "I myself was attacked in December on the street in Brussels. But I believe that one must not generalize and blame all Arabs in Europe," he continued. "We must create relations with the Arabs in Belgium and in Europe."
The demonstration drew young and old. Moshe Prys, 79, a resident of Brussels who survived the Holocaust in Switzerland, came to show his solidarity with Israel. Sam Topor, a 77-year-old Auschwitz survivor, wore a concentration camp cap bearing his prisoner number. "Auschwitz must not happen again," he said.
Among the young attendees were Julian Voloj, 28, of Muenster, Germany, who heads the European Union of Jewish Students, and medical student Marie Laure Ben Amram, 24, of Geneva. "In the last few months, our synagogue and community center were vandalized," Ben Amram said. "There have been verbal attacks on men with kipahs (head coverings) on the street. We are feeling that something is going wrong, so I wanted to be here and demonstrate."
Londoner Alan Senitt, 23, chairman of the Union of Jewish Students in Great Britain, said students have reported "a lot of problems on campus," including physical attacks and bricks thrown through their windows. On one campus, "the General Union of Palestinian Students handed out a statement claiming to be from Benjamin Franklin saying that Jews are vampires and suck the blood of any community they move into," said Senitt, who presented the information to several E.U. Parliament members a day before the demonstration. "It was a Nazi forgery from 1942 or 1943."
Some European Jewish leaders are calling for the creation of a European Jewish lobby that would meet with E.U. legislators in Brussels, as American Jewish groups do in Washington. A proposal for such a lobby was presented at the October 2001 annual meeting of the World Jewish Congress in Jerusalem. Wednesday's demonstration may be a step toward building it.
"The 25 Jewish communities represented here send a strong message," said Ariel Muzikant, head of the Austrian Jewish community. "We want to create one unified group within the European community." `
"This is a pan-European demonstration," agreed Daniel Stimmer, an executive of the Jewish Council of Representatives in Belgium. "And it is the first time that Belgian Jews have supported Israel in the street."
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.